American composer Aaron Copland is probably best-known for his ballet scores, including Billy the Kidd and Appalachian Spring. Copland had a wide range of artistic interests, collaborating with choreographer Martha Graham, writing film scores, and composing in most of the significant styles of the 20th century over the course of his career. His interest in jazz and Latin jazz is at work in the Clarinet Concert, which was commissioned by the clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman. Goodman also had eclectic musical interests, and during his career went from big band to bebop and beyond. But he was always interested in classical music as well, and recorded Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K. 622 in the 1930s. Goodman also commissioned Béla Bartók’s Contrasts, for clarinet, violin and piano; that piece, like the Copland and other works Goodman commissioned, has become part of the standard repertoire.
The Copland Concerto was premiered in November 1950, in a radio broadcast by Goodman and the NBC Symphony Orchestra., conducted by Frtiz Reiner. Two weeks later, clarinetist Ralph McClane gave the piece its public premiere with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The following year, choreographer Jerome Robbins set his ballet The Pied Piper to the concerto, which helped the piece gain critical and audience acclaim.
Copland’s work from this period has been described as “…a remarkable body of work, in a style which came as close as any to blending popular and serious in a productively intimate synthesis.” The Concerto, with its jazz influence, is such a blend. The piece’s structure and instrumentation are unconventional; Copland explained his instrumentation this way: The instrumentation being clarinet with strings, harp, and piano, I did not have a large battery of percussion to achieve jazzy effects, so I used slapping basses and whacking harp sounds to simulate them. The Clarinet Concerto ends with a fairly elaborate coda in C major that finishes off with a clarinet glissando – or “smear” in jazz lingo. Written in two movements, rather than the traditional three-movement concerto form, the first movement, marked “Slowly and expressively”, showcases the clarinet’s ability to blend with strings and play lyrically. The virtuosity that audiences expect from a piece called “concerto” doesn’t appears until the cadenza that links the two movements. Fans of Leonard Bernstein might hear hints of his style in the cadenza, as the soloist leaves the wistfulness of the first movement behind and transitions to Latin-jazz influenced second (marked “Rather fast”). The piece has been recorded many times, including a recording by Goodman himself.
Take home points:
- Copland wrote this piece on commission from Benny Goodman
- The Clarinet Concerto blends elements of popular and classical music
- Copland continued to grow as a composer throughout his career, and never stopped experimenting musically